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Blame shortage on salaries

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Salary disparities among medical specialties play a major role in the shortage of primary care physicians, a recent JAMA study shows.

Dr. Mark Ebell, a professor and assistant to the provost at the University of Georgia, compared 2007 starting salaries for various physician specialties with the percentage of medical school graduates choosing those specialties. He found a direct correlation between salary and the popularity of a specialty.

Ebell found the same relationship in a study he conducted nearly 20 years ago. Since then, the salary disparities have grown and the shortage of primary care physicians—including those in family medicine, pediatrics, or general internal medicine—has become more pronounced. In the past decade, the number of U.S. medical school graduates entering family practice residencies has dropped 50 percent.


Graph of Primary Care Physician Salary Disparities
Graph of Primary Care Physician Salary Disparities

Ebell’s suggests one possible reform: expanded debt relief for students who choose primary care practices—especially in underserved areas. The average debt for a medical school graduate has quadrupled—from $35,000 to $140,000—in the nearly 20 years since Ebell’s original study. When students graduate with the equivalent of a mortgage in debt, he says, they can’t help but be drawn to high-paying specialties rather than primary care.


“The problem of salary disparities … is not something that anyone is going to solve locally. This is something that will require reform at a national level.” — Dr. Mark Ebell




UO Staff

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